Thursday, September 21, 2006

Flashback: Battles I Lost While Working for an Exceedingly Honorable Albeit Liberal Republican Governor—but Joys As Well.

[More from fifty years of politics for my kids and grandchildren].

Working for an exceedingly honorable, some would say lofty others would say crafty, governor…either a John Gardner-style reformer or a trimmer who forsook conservatism in order to build a kind of Third Way of governance, ignoring his party in the process…was fun, invigorating, filled with great memories and many, many lost battles. The most praise I can give my old boss, Elmer L. Andersen, is this: there was never a time…never a single time…when crass, quid-pro-quo politics intervened in his running state government: never once. None of his appointees was ever suspected of being on the take. No jobs were promised, no deals with contracts were cut. The office of contract compliance was in place and had served dispassionately from the day we walked in. While I was there, I shared workloads with the same Democratic and Republican professionals who had worked at the highest levels of state government for Republican Luther Youngdahl, Democrat Orville Freeman and us. The same budget specialists that advised Freeman advised us and advised our successors. They served us on the state capitol third floor and our soon-to-be-announced opponent, Karl Rolvaag on the 2nd floor. Whenever I consider the rabid partisanship that engulfed the George Ryan administration, I marvel at the almost pristine innocence of those years.

The contrast between that Minnesota and this Illinois stunned me when I returned to my home state in 1964 and to see the grunting, inexpressibly ultra-partisan skirmishing carried on by Dick Ogilvie and his group to scale the heights of the governorship. Patronage and contracts were the only things that seemingly mattered. One thing I have concluded: Minnesota’s state government then had no scandals because it had a firmly entrenched, clean civil service system with only a handful of jobs available to elected officials—jobs they were rather careful to fill with well-qualified individuals who could serve well…precisely because there were so few political jobs available. Illinois, a prime patronage state, has a civil service system that is evidently a laughingstock where qualifications are winked at too often which make mockery of those who are highly qualified. With Minnesota’s, if you ever tried to hire a relative or friend who was unqualified…or who was asked to perform a distinctly political service…you were sure to be found out, indicted and go to jail. Likewise, I can clearly state that there was no scandal in Orville Freeman’s administration either, or major scandals whatsoever in Minnesota government going back to the early days of the 20th century.

But I promised to tell about the battles I lost, didn’t I?

The non-partisan, anti-party belief of my boss, who shirked his party responsibilities, drove me nuts. All executives, presidents and governors, should, intentionally…as is their right…name jurists who share a general philosophy with the governor’s party. Andersen was the first and only Republican of any stature who was determined to keep a “bipartisan balance” on the state courts and regulatory agencies instead of naming qualified people to uphold a party’s philosophy: it was stunning to me and still is. Walter Judd had a particularly vehement opponent in past years, a highbinder personal injury lawyer Joe Robbie. Robbie, a Lebanese, was an itinerant political junkie and hustler but also a kind of entrepreneur who often couldn’t pay his bills. For a long time, politics was his undoing. He ran for South Dakota governor twice unsuccessfully. He moved to Minnesota without a dime, ran twice for Congress against Judd unsuccessfully. After the second loss to Judd the old charlatan who was also a brilliant attorney when he concentrated on it, needed a job. He applied to Andersen for the job of head of the Minnesota Municipal Commission, a regulatory agency to succeed an old DFLer who retired. Nobody questioned that Joe had the ability to do the job—probably better than it had been done before. But his views were not in keeping with Andersen’s party and Robbie was clearly seeking the job as a tide-me-by until he could either run against Judd again or do something else in DFL politics. Therefore the naming or Robbie was an insult to the Republicans.

There was no question that Andersen wanted to name Robbie. Robbie was indeed a good municipal attorney but I asked him: isn’t there a Republican municipal attorney just as good as Joe around? Believe it or not, Andersen wanted to keep what he saw as a “balance” in government, a liberal to replace a liberal. I said, “has it occurred to you that Joe wants to run against Judd a third time and this job will keep him in the public light?” Andersen said so what: he was a good lawyer and he would keep the “balance.” .

I said: “Balance? Don’t you understand that the nature of our two party system is to replenish governmental agencies from time to time with those who have different approaches? That’s the so-called `balance’ Governor. Have I missed something in poly sci class? Gee whiz!” I lost; he made the Robbie appointment. Judd told me: “Elmer’s trying to woo the liberals but I’ll tell him this—that never works.” He was right. Robbie later quit, used a Chicago banking connection, a friend of Humphrey’s, to move to Florida and round up some financing in Miami where there was no sports competition. It was all paper clips and scotch tape with Robbie who often once again couldn’t pay his bills. He raised $7.5 million himself, overcame a pro-football embargo and bought the Dolphins in 1965 and hired Joe Shula. Their phenomenal Superbowl record caused them to name the stadium after him. To the end his was fighting off creditors and competitors, one of whom was entertainer Danny Thomas, a fellow Lebanese, who sought to displace Robbie with a group of investors. Robbie narrowly survived. He died in 1990. The stadium’s name has been changed.

A second battle between Andersen and me involved an appointment to the state Supreme Court. Frank Gallagher, an old DFLer, was slipping physically and mentally. The chief justice wanted Andersen to have coffee with him and suggest he consider retirement. Andersen did but the old man wouldn’t have anything to do with the idea. Then Andersen suggested that if Gallagher retired he’d appoint another DFLer, Bob Sheran, a prominent lawyer and former state Senator—a DFLer—to the post. Gallagher loved the idea and made plans to clean our his desk. I blew up—this happening right after Robbie. I told the governor: If I wanted to help the DFL, I would have accepted Hubert’s original offer to work for him years ago. This appointment of Sheran means that a young DFLer will be on the Court for years to come. “Yes,” said Andersen, “but you have to admit that Sheran is a top lawyer.” Sure he’s a top lawyer, I said. Don’t we have any young top lawyers? I think, I added, you’re really a DFLer at heart, Governor. “No,” he said, “I want to preserve the balance on the Court.” I asked: Is this what Republicans thought they were getting when they voted for you?

That was scathingly rude and I shouldn’t have said it. No answer. He wasn’t a DFLer but thinking of himself: Andersen. He was really thinking that it would help him with the DFLers in Mankato. It didn’t. He taught me a prime political lesson: if you don’t remember your base, when you run again they won’t remember you. They didn’t.

These were the battles I lost—all over the governor’s failure to understand he should build up his party. The fun things involved the decision of the old Washington Senators to move to Minnesota and become the Minnesota Twins. The governor was supposed to officially welcome Twins owner Cal Griffith to the state with a meeting in his office. I enlarged it to a huge public reception after talking to Griffith. He concurred that he would give free tickets to the opening game to all pairs of twins who showed up at the Capitol for the reception. I announced it to the media and the rotunda was jammed with twins, ranging from 2 years old to 96. It got national media attention. “That’s what you good at,” the governor said, “rather than giving me hell over my appointments.” Wrong. Somebody should have given him hell about those appointments and nobody wanted to but me.

Another fun thing involved our program to help Minnesota Indians on the reservations with good state programs in nutrition, anti-alcoholism, child welfare and sanitation, all which were sadly lacking. The governor and I made several trips to the reservations. Hubert Humphrey, jealously watching our progress, blasted us from Washington with a press release that accused us of capitalizing on Indian misery for political gain. When I got the acting head of the Chippewa tribe to respond in a story that was run banner-line under the head “Indian Leader Rips Humphrey for Cynicism” there was silence from the Senator. Then a letter arrived at my desk a week later in an envelope from Humphrey’s Senate office. It contained the clipping circling the Indian leader’s statement and bearing the notation in his handwriting: “God, Roeser, if only white people could write like that!” It showed that he was aware of where the rejoinder had originated—but it was in good humor and showed that in this battle we won round one.

When I made a routine trip to Washington, D. C. as the 1962 political season started…to visit the GOP delegation as liaison man for the governor…I was informed by my secret DFL moles that Hubert had taken over practical management of the Rolvaag gubernatorial campaign. He was determined to do all he could to elect a governor as prelude to a future attempt to run for president. His plan: Of course he would support the Kennedy-Johnson ticket for reelection in 1964 but he believed, correctly, that Johnson’s heart problems might well detour his running for president in 1968 and Humphrey wanted to become the nominee that year when he would be 57 years old. To gain credibility as a Democratic leader he needed to win back the governorship for a DFLer, Karl Rolvaag, in 1962 to be followed by Walter Mondale by the time Humphrey would make his third pass at the presidency in 1968. An insider in the DFL in Washington told me: “Roeser, you guys have Humphrey’s undivided attention. He feels he must retake the governorship in 1962. Watch it. He’s attempting to figure out how he can devise a so-called scandal.”

There were no scandals and would be none with our clean-as-a-whistle administration. But how Humphrey invented a scandal that never existed shows the raw machinations of this at once lovable but formidable…even grimly opportunistic…political figure.

1 comment:

  1. It's Don Shula. Not Joe.

    (P.S. -- These are very enjoyable recollections.)